TITLE: The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years
AUTHOR: J. G. M. "Hans" Thewissen
DATE PUBLISHED: 2014
"Hans Thewissen, a leading researcher in the field of whale paleontology and anatomy, gives a sweeping first-person account of the discoveries that brought to light the early fossil record of whales. As evidenced in the record, whales evolved from herbivorous forest-dwelling ancestors that resembled tiny deer to carnivorous monsters stalking lakes and rivers and to serpentlike denizens of the coast.
Thewissen reports on his discoveries in the wilds of India and Pakistan, weaving a narrative that reveals the day-to-day adventures of fossil collection, enriching it with local flavors from South Asian culture and society. The reader senses the excitement of the digs as well as the rigors faced by scientific researchers, for whom each new insight gives rise to even more questions, and for whom at times the logistics of just staying alive may trump all science.
In his search for an understanding of how modern whales live their lives, Thewissen also journeys to Japan and Alaska to study whales and wild dolphins. He finds answers to his questions about fossils by studying the anatomy of otters and porpoises and examining whale embryos under the microscope. In the book's final chapter, Thewissen argues for approaching whale evolution with the most powerful tools we have and for combining all the fields of science in pursuit of knowledge."
This is a delightful book: full colour illustrations, diagrams, maps, beautifully detailed science writing and an author who assumes his readers are intelligent and interested.
This book reads something like a detective novel. The author starts off with one of his (presumably failed) fossil finding expeditions in Pakistan, 1991, what he found there, the implications and what happened next. Thewissen manages to include biographical "stories" without coming across as self-important (he is humble and rather amusing), and gives credit where credit is due. All these biographical anecdotes are from his field expeditions and the people he dealt with - essentially where he went, why, what issues he had, what he found and why this was significant - fit into the whole book and the science sections quite well. These anecdotes were quite interesting and I looked forward to reading them. You get to find out what a paleontologist does when he has made an important fossil discovery but doesn't have enough funds to fly it back the laboratory; and what happens when said paleontologist gets too impatient to dig out a fossil and yanks it out of the ground instead.
Besides the enlightening anecdotes, Thewissen discusses the specifics of whale evolution using fossil, biological (physiologica, cladistic and DNA where possible) and chemical evidence, usually in the order in which the discoveries were made. All the relevant science from different fields is nicely explained withouth being tedious or overly technical (except the anatomy parts, which can't really be helped). The author is also careful in spearating speculation from what can reasonably be assumed from the evidence.
Thewissen has summarised the remarkable progress that has been made in terms of our understanding of whale origins - with many "intermediate" fossils, clear-cut functional links, and the beginnings of the molecuar mechanisms that drive it all. Thewissen takes the reader on an mystery-solving adventure that eventually helps us understand the evolution of whales from small hooved, land animals that resembled mouse deer and requiring fresh water for drinking, to our current salt-water, fishy-shaped giants with flippers.